The Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism -

‘IREVIEWED BY MADELEINE KINGS­LEY F IN DOUBT,” the rubric runs, “ask the r a bbi. ” T hat’ s not the way of things in the faith-for­got­ten Litvi­noff fam­ily, who ha­bit­u­all y r e t urn barmitzvah in­vi­ta­tions with “There is no God” scrawled over the en­grav­ing. In Zoe Heller’s cru­elly clever new novel, Joel and Au­drey Litvi­noff are the (epony­mous and tongue-incheek) be­liev­ers. Theirs is the third gen­er­a­tion to have re­jected Ju­daism since Joel’s refugee grandma caused a shanda (scan­dal), fling­ing her head­scarf into New York har­bour as the Statue of Lib­erty loomed.

It is rad­i­cal­ism that the cou­ple have be­lieved in for 40 years — though, post 9/11, shanda ter­ri­tory has shifted. Joel, the long­stand­ing celebrity left-winger and hot­shot lawyer, no longer com­mands the same ac­tivist ad­mi­ra­tion. The pa­pers dub him “rent-a-rad­i­cal”.

At 72, he is de­fend­ing an Al Qaeda camp trainee in a high-pro­file trial when he suf­fers a stroke in court. Au­drey, daugh­ters Karla — obese and down­trod­den — and Rosa, along with repro­bate, adopted son, Lenny — whom Au­drey clearly and de­lib­er­ately favours over the girls — con­gre­gate at the bed­side of the co­matose Joel. So, dis­turbingly, does a large, dread­locked, black woman who may, or may not, have rights.

At this point, read­ers of Heller’s last, Booker-short­listed novel, Notes on a Scan­dal, will ex­pect scant con­so­la­tion to emerge from this fic­tional cri­sis.

Heller’s gift is for chron­i­cling come­up­pance, for tar­nish­ing the glam­our she so deftly de­picts, and for ex­pos­ing the psy­cho­log­i­cal flaws in char­ac­ters she con­veys with as much scorn as af­fec­tion. An in­ci­sive, tragi-comic pup­peteer, Heller writes like a dream, de­ploy­ing words that are fine but none­the­less con­trive to sit col­lo­qui­ally on pages that must be turned.

At times, how­ever, her prose reads like a stab in the back from pro­trud­ing bed­springs. One way or an­other, the al­ter­na­tive, anti-es­tab­lish­ment think­ing of every­one who loves Joel is thrown dis­turbingly into doubt. As he lies di­min­ished, Au­drey masks her vul­ner­a­bil­ity with a vi­cious tongue pre­vi­ously tem­pered by Joel’s bon­homie.

Be­hind the bravado, she won­ders what the Litvi­noff prin­ci­ples have re­ally achieved and whether she (a won’tcook-won’t-clean fem­i­nist) could at least have stooped to buy the break­fast bialys her hus­band loved.

Au­drey con­trols her daugh­ters by crit­i­cism, and her son by smother love, so you could be for­given for see­ing Au­drey as an ex­treme ex­am­ple of the dom­i­neer­ing Jewish ma­tri­archy she de­plores. At which point, en­ter the rabbi: of all three griev­ing chil­dren fum­bling their trou­bled ways for­ward it is Rosa who most out­rages Au­drey.

For Rosa, a slim, blonde for­mer chip off the old ac­tivist block, has re­belled in the in­creas­ingly fa­mil­iar way of her gen­er­a­tion: fresh from four dis­il­lu­sion­ing years in Cuba she slips into a syn­a­gogue and finds her­self… at home. Quite the most touch­ing chap­ters of this richly sat­is­fy­ing novel find Rosa cel­e­brat­ing shab­bas in a sub­ur­ban rabbi’s house where she is mis­taken for a goy; or ex­plor­ing her com­plex feel­ings about the ed­u­cated Or­tho­dox woman who “makes her­self over as a me­dieval ghetto-dweller” and asks the rabbi rather than im­pro­vise a moral code.

In the Jewish con­text, Heller re­mains an un­spar­ing ex­am­iner of at­ti­tudes and foibles. But she soft­ens slightly — or ap­pears to — as if she, like Rosa, salutes the elu­sive “del­i­cacy of mind” that be­lieves without fully know­ing it is right.

Madeleine Kings­ley is a free­lance writer

Zoe Heller: an un­spar­ing ex­am­iner of hu­man foibles

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